W. Alejandro Sanchez
June 7, 2013
On Thursday May 16, General John F. Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), gave a presentation at the renowned Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC (an audio copy of his remarks can be found here). While some of the remarks by the SOUTHCOM commander regarding hemispheric security threats were fairly standard and well-known to Latin American security scholars, other statements can be regarded as ideologically progressive. Moreover, this “on the record” event gives us an idea of the priorities and objectives SOUTHCOM will have under its new commander.
The SOUTHCOM commander discussed the influence of extra-hemispheric nations in the region, and he specifically addressed China, Iran and Russia. He said, “the various extra regional actors engaging with the Americas have a somewhat mixed track record of fully abiding by these hemispheric principles.” The principles he was referring to are peace, stability, good governance and respect for human rights. He also called for greater transparency in military relations, including arms sales from China to the region. This is certainly a timely issue as extra-hemispheric powers continue to expand their influence in the region (the Monroe Doctrine is largely irrelevant by now). For example, Beijing has been successful in utilizing “dollar diplomacy” to befriend Caribbean states. Interestingly, during the event’s Q&A section General Kelly praised the cooperation between Russia and Nicaragua in combating drug trafficking in Central America. We may not see a troika between Managua-Washington-Moscow arise anytime soon, but such declarations from high ranking U.S. military officers exemplify that the Cold War era mindset of Moscow being the enemy is mutating into a new approach to relations between the Cold War foes. And given the increase in drug trafficking that transits Central America to the United States, it is wise for Washington and SOUTHCOM to foment partnerships with other global powers to fight transnational crime.
Unsurprisingly, transnational criminal networks were also highlighted throughout in the general’s presentation. Kelly explained that, “[drug trafficking] is a multibillion dollar business built on addiction and exploitation.” It is noteworthy that General Kelly also discussed human trafficking in the region and how a lot of women and young children involved in it end up being exploited in the sex trade. Human trafficking is an often overlooked aspect of the activities carried out by transnational criminal organizations in Latin America. But it is debatable how well SOUTHCOM will be able to help regional partners fight these crimes in the coming years. Due to sequestration and the U.S. pivot to Asia, it is uncertain how many resources (financial, military hardware and personnel available) SOUTHCOM will have in coming years to carry out its plethora of initiatives, including training regional security personnel, carrying out the New Horizons humanitarian operations, and military exercises.
Finally, the Marine general was careful when he discussed the use of regional militaries for law enforcement operations and internal security. General Kelly explained, “there is real cause for concern when the military of any country is deployed domestically to carry out law enforcement activities; however, we have to recognize the fact […] that there are extraordinary times when defense support to civilian authorities is absolutely necessary, legitimate and appropriate, although it should only be in a temporary basis.” Certainly, this is a complicated subject as Latin America has a violent record when its militaries are used as police forces to quell protests, criminal networks or insurgent movements. The general also explained how Central American countries are in a particularly tough situation and have to temporarily use their own militaries for internal security operations.
Understandably, the general, even though he mentioned Guatemala several times, avoided commenting on the fate of former Guatemalan strongman, General Jose Efrain Rios Montt (1982-1983), who was a close U.S. ally during the Cold War and that country’s vicious bloody civil war.
Finally, General Kelly argued, “the region, despite its challenges, is a good news story, one that speaks more of exciting opportunities than of insurmountable threats.” He also explained how “the Americas are a beacon of peace and growing prosperity.” Diplomatic and necessary pleasantries aside, the aforementioned security issues raised by the new SOUTHCOM commander and some of his other points of view (i.e. regarding Russia’s future role in the Americas), provide an insight into the objectives and goals of the U.S. government and military towards Latin America and the Caribbean for the coming years.